What is Vernacular Architecture and Should You Use It?

If you’re not sure what vernacular architecture is, you’d be forgiving. Until recently, vernacular architecture which, (as Archdaily puts it, is best described as the ‘simplest form of addressing human needs’), had all but died out. And then along came eco-awareness and a re-embracing of an energy-efficient, sustainable approach to building– which, wouldn’t you know, are both well achieved using the low-tech methods employed by vernacular architecture. Before we get too much into the why’s and wherefores, a quick explanation. As Ronald Brunskill notes in Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture, vernacular architecture can be defined as:

“a building by an amateur without training in design, guided by conventions developed in his locality. The function would be dominant, aesthetics, though present, minimal. Local materials would be used, other materials being chosen exceptionally”.

But how does this translate to the here and now? And should you consider vernacular architecture on your next project? Let’s take a look.

What is Vernacular Architecture

As per the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, vernacular architecture can be defined as:

“…. related to its environmental contexts and available resources, utilizing traditional methods. Vernacular architecture builds to meet specific needs, accommodating the values and way of life of the communities that build them.”

Simply put, vernacular architecture is one of the oldest forms of architecture around. Before we could ship materials halfway around the world, we had to make use of the resources and materials around us. So, if you wanted to make a shelter and the only thing you had in any real abundance was mud, then a mud house it had to be. If you lived in an area with a plentiful supply of slate, that’s what you’d use for your roof.

But vernacular architecture isn’t just about the materials; it’s about the craftsmanship. Communities grew around traditional structures in which the art and methods used in building construction were developed regionally and tweaked over multiple generations. As Missouri Folklore Society notes, architecture and architects as we know them today didn’t exist until relatively recently: in days gone by, people passed on their skills and knowledge through apprenticeships and shared experience. And that tradition and those shared experiences continued unabated right up until the 17th century.

Most of the older houses you see today were designed and built in the same tradition, and as such are usually peculiar to the region in which they’re found. In the US, for example, the long, narrow Shotgun Homes that shot up in the late 1800s are typically found predominantly in the southern states, while the trend for bungalows in the 1920 s became a particularly common style in Chicago. Other examples of vernacular architecture found throughout the world include the Adobe house in Spain; the Turf house, the Shieling, the Bastle house, and the Crofters cottage in Scotland; the Gulf house and the Old Frisian farmhouse in Germany; Desert castles in Iraq, and the Tube house in Vietnam.

Characteristics of Vernacular Architecture

Some of the key characteristics that run throughout all structures built using vernacular architecture include:

  • Environmentally Aware – Vernacular architecture exists in harmony with the environment and is connected to its surroundings in a way that modern architecture so often is anything but. Designs tend to reflect the particular climate in which the structure is built, from the choice of material to the direction of the windows and the thickness of the walls.
  • Inexpensive – Thanks to the use of locally sourced materials, structures built in the vernacular style are characterized by their low-cost construction. Designs tend to prioritize function over beauty, which again contributes to their affordability.
  • Culturally Specific – Vernacular architecture reflects the particular region in which the structures are found, not only because of the use of local materials but because traditions would be passed through generation after generation in the same community. While styles would be tweaked and changed over time, a consistent, culturally specific vein will connect them.

Should You Use It?

If you want to be environmentally friendly and preserve the cultural inheritance of your region, vernacular architecture may well be the way to go. Just a few of the reasons to consider adopting it include:

  • Going Green – There’s nothing generic about vernacular architecture: the style works by addressing the specific needs of your environment, no one else’s. Best of all, it perfectly meets today’s preference for ‘green buildings’. In hot or cold climates, this may translate to structures with thick walls and small windows – all the better for keeping the extreme heat or cold out, and reducing  – expenditure on heating or air conditioning. In regions with high rainfall, it might mean a preference for structures on stilts and with sloped roofs. Thinking carefully about material choice, roof shape, and even window size is integral to “green building best practice”, and are all part and parcel of vernacular architecture.
  • Keeping It Local – Vernacular architecture is about making the most of local and regional materials. In a world where pollution and CO2 levels are rising to exponential levels, surely anything that keeps things local and helps reduce air miles has to be a good thing.
  • Preserving Cultures – Diversity is something to be celebrated, but in a world of identikit houses, it’s fast being lost. Vernacular architecture aims to preserve local traditions and cultural heritage, both in terms of the materials that go into the buildings and the craftmanship that constructs them. As Next.cc comments, indigenous buildings, from igloos to bamboo houses, from thatched roofs to terraced, demonstrate people’s ability to create unique shelters that reflect their position on the globe – and that, surely, is something to be celebrated.
  • Cost-Effective – Vernacular architecture is one of the most cost-efficient approaches to building out there. Think about… why pay for the privilege of importing costly materials when all you need is readily available in your local area? If you’re looking for a cost-efficient, green, and culturally relevant architectural style, vernacular architecture is the way to go.

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